Monday, 25 October 2010


'Catholic bloggers aim to purge dissent'

'Catholic Taliban'

These headlines have been floating around the blogosphere in recent days, and they have stirred something which has been cooking at the back of my mind for a little while.

There has recently (over the last seven hundred years or so, I mean) been a tendency towards the repression of dissent. Some have traced it back to St Augustine's reluctant agreement that, if the only way to restrain the violence of the Circumcellion Donatists was to use violence back, then this might be justified, catching the little foxes that might destroy the vines.
Already there was an understanding between Church and State. It had begun with the Edict of Milan in 313 whereafter the Church henceforward would support the state, and the state would support the Church. It wasn't altogether a marriage made in heaven, but it more or less worked, with the Church being sometimes the junior, sometimes the senior, partner.

Heresy was considered seditious. It was considered to affect the State quite as much as the Church. From the Church's point of view, the state, then, would enforce orthodoxy for its own purposes as much as the Church's, this really getting into its stride only quite recently, with the Cathar business in France.
At bottom, this meat that if the Church said someone was a heretic, the state would kindly burn them and rid both Church and State of a troublesome individual. Everyone (except the heretic) benefitted.

For all sorts of reasons which I won't go into here, (and simplifying dangerously), the Enlightenment changed all that. Orthodoxy was considered the Church's matter, and the Church was left to get on with it. The concordat with Napoleon strengthened the Church's hand a little, but really from now on, the Church was on her own. The nineteenth century growth of Ultramontanism and the proclamation of Papal Infallibility was enormously helpful in strengthening the centralized moral authority of the Church, as was the invention of modern methods of communication. Once what Wiseman called the telegraph's 'magic wires' had connected Rome to the rest of the world, it meant that, were one produced, Wilfrid Ward really could have a new Papal Encyclical on his breakfast table every morning. And Rome could hear of naughtinesses in remote dioceses within minutes.

The new system got its first real trial in the opening years of the twentieth century with the new heresy of Modernism. Hearing about it quite early on, Rome sought to nip this weed in the bud, and in 1908 or so fulminated the two encyclicals of Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Lamentabile Sane. Now, the State was not involved, but the Church yet pursued modernists relentlessly as it could. In my studies for a book I am writing, I have seen how the chillingly-named 'Vigilance Committee' of the Southwark diocese called in priest after priest and grilled them on their theological opinions. They found much to condemn, but there was a horrible atmosphere; brother reported on brother, fulminations were fulminated, excommunicands were excommunicated and buried without Catholic rites…… and for what? Sixty years later it all sprang up again, because the matter had never been properly dealt with in the first place.

Simple condemnation is no real use unless you can call on secret police, thumbscrews and a stake to back it up. And I'm happy to leave that sort of stuff in the past, and I wish it hadn't happened then, either. Quite a lot of the condemnation stuff happened in the last pontificate, the then Cardinal Ratzinger having taken quite a lot of the flack for it.

He was on a losing wicket, of course. The world's bishops were deeply reluctant to sort out heretics themselves, and so left it to Rome, rather like a harassed mother saying 'just wait till your father gets home' so that she can play the nice parent and let the father become the hated one. Several of the cases that came to the Holy Office could and should have been sorted out at home. Tissa Balasuriya for one. Even Hans Küng for another. And, when the case came to Rome, Ratzinger had to do with far more fuss and scandal what these chaps' own bishops should have already quietly sorted out themselves.
In addition, I suspect, that the notorious condemnations without adequate hearings were not Ratzinger's idea either, and may suggest why he invited Hans Küng to tea so soon after his election, and why he appointed a gentle man to the Holy Office, and why the same Holy Office has gone very quiet (on the whole) since.

What I am trying to lurch my way round to saying is that nowadays condemnation is not the best way to deal with things. The Holy Father does not think so, nor do I. Condemnation á la Pascendi did not deal with the Modernist problem, but drove it underground, where it brewed and grumbled until it sprang forth a hundred times stronger.
These days we are not in the position of simply condemning someone and trusting in the state to make the problem go away. Now, we have to fight with our minds and with our pens, with our prayer and with our good example. And if we are going to fight, it is best that we know what our enemy thinks, and why he thinks it. If we simply suppress him and his writings, we are never going to know what the problems are that have led to this situation. If we have not heard the genuine weight of his argument, if we have not listened with openness and goodness in our hearts, then we will not be dealing with the situation, simply repressing it, and that fruitlessly.

It is surely much more important to win somebody's soul than to burn his body. And ideally we could even make a friend of him.

To which end, I say, not Tabula delenda est, but Tabula promovenda est. While Newchurch has an organ to express itself, we have a means of understanding not what we think it says, but what it actually says, and we can argue with it, and debate with it in charity, in omni patientia, and perhaps win it over. If something offends you in its pages, write in, or do a blog post, or something. Don't just say 'burn it'!


Simon Cotton said...

There is disinformation on both sides (both now and 800 years ago). The popular view seems to subsist that the Cathars were sweet, peace-loving people, who were obliterated by the wicked Church. If you read Rene Weis's excellent book "The Yellow Cross", one finds that the Cathars, of Montaillou at least, could be just as nasty.

Pastor in Monte said...

Oh yes, you're quite right. That was my point about the Circumcellions, who could be really ghastly.

umblepie said...

Nice post Father, thanks.

pelerin said...

Father - you say 'if something offends you in its pages write in, do a blog post or something'. But look what happened to poor 'Fr Mildew.' Surely this episode will make others more fearful of any criticism?

George Carmody said...

We should recognise dissent for what it is! Sometimes a line needs to be drawn.

Pastor in Monte said...

Guild Master; oh yes, I'm not suggesting that error should be allowed to flourish; it is rather that it should be combatted not simply sat on in the hope that it will go away.

Londiniensis said...

There is much in this post to mull over, and I began to feel uneasy only at the end: I think the problem with The Tablet is not in what it says - far be it from me to promote book-burning - but in what it is.

Partly through its history and partly by default it is universally seen as the voice of thinking Catholicism in the UK, and as such of rehearsing positions which are "Catholic" and mainstream.

What is perhaps more disturbing is that it is seen in some quarters as reflecting the opinions of a sizeable number, perhaps the majority, of our bishops, educational establishment and active laity.

Father John Boyle said...

Dear Father

You write most eloquently. For me, as a simple catholic, the question remains: why do not the shepherds do something? Why do they not respond to the legitimate worries of their faithful and vulnerable sheep?

Hope you are enjoying your sabbatical.

Father John Boyle said...


Anonymous said...

Imagine if the state took such an attitude as regards its wrongdoers!!

What do you think the lesson would be - even if not actually intended by the government - that would be taken by the general populace???

+ Wolsey

Anonymous said...

Oh, and that's another point - heretics are even worse than murderers, and just as murderers deserve capital punishment, so do heretics.

+ Wolsey

Anonymous said...

Fortunately, the Church now disapproves capital punishment.

pendean said...

As one who thinks 'modernism' means 'papal paranoia' or 'fear of the truth', I nevertheless basically agree with this post. Our obedience is not to the hierarchy unconditionally but to God's truth (which is not entirely coincident with the teaching of the visible Church). Truth is best served when we are able to listen to as wide a range of views as possible. A culture of mutual name-calling serves no-one.

Rubricarius said...

Fr. Séan

What a refreshing and well-written post.

Looking at some of the comments on some blogs one is left with the impression that the teaching of Christ and how he treated his earthly enemies has little relevance to some.

Anonymous said...

Field of Dreams,

Where is it infallibly taught?

+ Wolsey

Anonymous said...

Actually, one reason inquisitions came about was to stop the popular lynchings of heretics.

+ Wolsey